‘We launched with 60,000 distribution’
February 1, 2013
Community Impact News has traction in Texas
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
If you call the Community Impact News office and are lucky enough to be put on hold, you can spend a few minutes grooving to the funky sounds of Sam and Dave, Kool and the Gang, and other kings of classic soul.
The classic tune of “Jungle Boogie” streaming through the phone receiver is an instant toe-tapper and mood-lifter.
It is not a fluke or a mistake. This refreshing music was ordered up on purpose.
“We want people to know we’re different,” says Publisher John Garrett. “We get lots of compliments on the music.”
Garrett and his wife, Jennifer, own Impact, a hyperlocal newspaper company based in Pflugerville, TX (pronounced floogerville), a small suburban community outside of Austin.
Impact publishes 13 newspapers in 13 different communities. Each newspaper has its own small staff covering news in the Austin, Dallas and Houston suburbs. They report on local businesses, city council meetings and general happenings in the small towns with colorful names, like Poundrock, Grapevine, and Katy.
Distributed free by mail to more than 850,000 households, Impact covers more ground than the major dailies in Texas.
And it is profitable.
“We’re doing well enough that we continue to hire staff and we’re giving raises,” John says.
Today, the paper employs nearly 90 people.
Jennifer and John grew up in Pflugerville. They attended school there, and graduated from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX. John earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Radio and TV. Jennifer earned a Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design.
They were friends growing up. Marriage didn’t come until later.
“I finally wore her down,” John said joking during a conference call.
“That’s not true,” Jennifer shot back.
They do agree that good things come to those who wait.
They did not wait long to start their own newspaper.
John was just 28 when he left his job as ad director at the Austin Business Journal to start Impact. Jennifer was 26, and well into her career as an interior designer when her husband recruited her to run the business end of the new company.
To put it simply, John had a vision and plenty of contacts in the advertising world.
He saw an open window of opportunity to cover mom and pop businesses in the small suburban communities from the ground rather than globally, the way other more centralized publications cover them.
“We had thought about buying a newspaper, but the existing papers were more about Johnny kicking the winning field goal, than the substantive business news we thought was lacking,” he says.
The couple was also intrigued with the idea of starting from scratch.
So they did.
John left the Austin Business Journal in June 2005, and by September, he had published the first edition of Community Impact Newspaper.
“We launched with a 60,000 distribution,” he says.
The response from that launch told him he was on the right track, so he started expanding his reach.
“Every six months, I started a newspaper in a different area,” he says. “I started three in 2011. It was crazy.”
Today, the Garretts own and manage 13 hyperlocal newspapers.
They applied the brakes starting in 2008, when the economic recession peaked, but as business picked up, they resumed their growth, and they have set a goal to publish one or two new publications a year.
Waiting for the market to improve, the Garretts have spent recent years focusing on problem solving, product improvement and employee development.
“I am thankful for the fast growth, but I’m glad for the pause, too,” John says.
John went to work as an account executive in advertising with the Houston Chronicle right out of college. He was there for three years. Then came a brief stint at Advo. He worked his way to the Austin Business Journal where he served as the advertising director for three years.
Jennifer pursued her career in interior design, working as a designer, and gradually absorbing the business functions at the firms where she worked.
Her husband values her business skills, and today, her title is chief operating officer at Impact.
“The mission of our newspaper (company) is worthy,” John says. “We are in the middle of the information age, but no one knows what is going on in their own backyard.”
So Impact strives to fill that void through advertising and content, reporting regularly on businesses in each of the communities its newspapers serve.
“We don’t provide advertorials,” John says. “But we do cover businesses as news stories, whether they advertise with us or not.”
He cites examples.
When Wal-Mart located a store in Pflugerville, local businesses were worried.
“So we shed an editorial light on the mom and pops and what they do,” John says. “When we published a story about a local restaurant going out of business, its customers rallied, and the restaurant stayed open. In that way, we helped save a local business.”
His editorial department is led by a former eighth grade journalism teacher. All 13 papers have their own managers, editors, reporters, graphic designers and account executives, working out of offices in Pflugerville, the Houston metro area and the Dallas metro area.
Sometimes stories with widespread appeal overlap in more than one edition, and often advertising overlaps.
“We have some clients who want to advertise in multiple markets so we offer bundled rates,” John says. “We work really hard. We pound the pavement and build relationships.”
A monthly publication schedule pays off for Impact. Each edition is lean, with four to six employees including an editor, reporters, account executives and designers assigned to specific markets. Central teams run the command center, overseeing the website, finances, distribution, account coordination and other management details.
Just because the newspapers are monthly, doesn’t mean they are slow.
“With 13 separate newspapers spread over each month, we always have something going out,” John says.
Impact is printed on 35-pound highbright newsprint, stitched and trimmed. The tabloid-sized newspaper averages 24 to 72 pages each month, depending on the market. It is mailed using the standard periodical rate to every resident in each of its coverage areas.
“I prefer mailed delivery,” John says. “The newspapers get delivered to a mailbox where they are protected from the weather.”
Impact also has a website, with sections devoted to the three metro areas the newspapers cover.
Impact News skews toward business, but it is not hard for readers to find news about local and state government, the arts, education and local events.
“We publish information about events people will find useful,” Jennifer says.
During the annual South by Southwest music, film and technology festival, Impact is there to lend a guiding hand.
“We also publish a map of places to park,” Jennifer says. “Last Christmas we published a map to Christmas lights, things the Average Joe would appreciate.”
Impact does not editorialize or publish classified ads.
“We do cover local government and have reporters at every city council meeting,” John says.
The newspaper’s online flag includes a mission statement that reads: “Local, Useful, Everyone Gets It.”
John and Jennifer believe this philosophy gives them an edge in the three major metro areas of Texas, among the most media saturated places in the country.
“We are David verses. Goliath in these markets,” John says.
Impact is thriving in its tough market with a loyal base of advertisers and a team of hard-working salespeople.
And there’s the Garretts’ faith.
“We make mistakes, but we get through by grace and good people,” John says. “We face challenges like anyone else, but we focus on putting out a quality product and hiring quality people, and we are passionate about what we are doing.”
He offers a bit of advice:
“Give advertisers a reason to choose this medium by providing quality and competitive rates,” he says. “Step up big and spend some money. Invest in content and invest in quality.”
On Impact’s website are listed the company’s guiding principles, etched on stepping stones: “Faith, Passion, Quality, Innovation, Integrity.”
The Garretts speak those words frequently in conversation.
As the fog of the recent recession begins to lift, they are looking to the future.
“We publish 13 newspapers, and there is lots of room for growth,” John says. “There are still lots of communities without Impact publications.”
Here’s betting those communities will not be without Impact much longer.
Newspaper Company Name: Community Impact Newspaper.
President: John Garrett.
Chief Operating Officer: Jennifer Garrett.
What are you most proud of? The quality of our product and people makes us the most proud. We regularly get comments from our readers on how much they love the paper and the local business community appreciates the professionalism, work ethic, and talent of our staff.
What is Impact’s most distinguishing characteristic? Our thorough, unbiased and hyperlocal editorial content, our designs that draw readers in and the high-quality paper, stitched and trimmed in each edition.
What is your biggest challenge? We have had some operational growing pains. It is also a challenge to keep our culture and values with a growing staff.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in the communities it covers? The number of pictures we print. We are the everyday Joe and Jane’s eye on what the city and county is doing with their tax dollars. We are the voice of local business. We also believe being a newspaper gives us the opportunity to give even more back to the community by helping build a sense of community in suburban areas, supporting non profits, and helping newcomers assimilate into their communities.
What do you love to hear from readers? “I love your maps” and “I read it cover to cover.”